(Philippine Daily Inquirer)
CITY OF CALAPAN, Philippines—A cultural worker, who was supposed to visit his father on Christmas, was killed in a military operation in San Jose town, Occidental Mindoro, on Thursday, according to the youth group Anakbayan.
Anakbayan-Timog Katagalugan and Karapatan-Southern Tagalog identified the victim as Stephen Lester Barrientos, 19, a member of the cultural group Southern Tagalog Cultural Network (STCN).
“Before he left for Mindoro he was excited and even confident that no harm would happen in his visit because of the declared ceasefire,” said Neil John Macuha, Anakbayan deputy secretary general, in a press release received by the Inquirer on Saturday.
Both groups condemned the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ 80th Infantry Battalion led by Lt. Col. Roger Percol for its offensive operation in San Jose despite a government-declared ceasefire.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines and New People’s Army (NPA) have agreed to observe a ceasefire from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3, 2011, as part of a confidence-building measure before peace talks resume in the first quarter of 2011.
Col. Carlos Quita, commander of the 203rd Infantry Brigade, was surprised when asked about Barrientos. “He must be a rebel, then,” he said by phone on Saturday.
According to him, 20 soldiers and negotiating panel members were sent to the area to meet with Christian Bascos, 27, an alleged NPA rebel, who was about to turn himself in.
“But the returnee did not immediately show up so the (Army) troops pulled out,” he said.
Quita said that as they distanced themselves, a group of NPA rebels fired upon them.
He said there were less than 10 rebels and the gunfight did not last long.
Quita said they saw blood traces in the vicinity that could have come from a wounded rebel, but they did not recover any body from the site.
Bascos surrendered after the firefight and is under the custody of the Army.
“We did not violate the ceasefire. They were the ones who fired first and we have the right to self-defense,” added Quita.
He dismissed reports of three civilians illegally arrested in the operation.
Barrientos became a full-time member of the STCN after dropping out of Batangas State University due to financial difficulties.
He was active in many cultural performances in Southern Tagalog and the National Capital Region.
Barrientos was also involved in cultural workshops and street plays at picket lines, protest camps, far-flung rural areas and urban poor communities.
Meanwhile, in a phone interview with Barangay Bayotbot chairman Sandy Pondanera, he said they were not aware if it was the Army that was behind the killing and violation of the peace truce.
But he said it was peaceful in their community, because the killing took place more than eight kilometers from San Jose town proper, along the boundary of Barangays Mabini Annex and Antipolo.—Madonna T. Virola, Inquirer Southern Luzon